Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation

Bonds that transcend present

By Anirban Ganguly


In India’s engagement with France, through alliances of climate, energy and culture, are the defining contours of a deeply strategic partnership. France is indeed emerging as the civilisational partner from the West. This partnership is not artificially created, but has evolved organically

While Japan is one of India’s pre-eminent civilisational ally in the East, France emerges as one of its principal civilisational partners in the West. Interestingly, in the course of last one week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed and engaged with both — reiterating the continuum of this multifaceted civilisational evolution and its dimension. Among the numerous binding threads or cords of this civilisational alliance, addressing the multi-dimensional climate challenges have found a common resonance and aspiration for action.

In his message broadcast to the international conference on Asian Values and Democracy in Tokyo on January 19, Mr Modi — though his views were given a short shrift as usual by the Indian media and the routine pack of revolution hunting intellectuals — made some profound observation reflecting a deeper and sustaining approach to life and living that is essentially based on the Indic approach to the world and creation.

“All Asian civilisations”, observed Mr Modi, “Indic, Shinto, or Dao, had a common value system which could avoid conflicts among humans and between humans and nature. That common value system recognises, accepts and even celebrates diversity among humans. This is what leads to conflict avoidance as it is founded on harmony in diversity. Conflict avoidance based on harmonising the diversity of humans is inherent in Asian democracy as its basic value. Our idea of democracy is not just a game of numbers mediated by the rules of majority and minority as it happens in numerical democracies. Our democratic approach is founded on consensus. It does not rest on the idea of rights alone but also includes duties. The Indian constitution provides for moral fundamental duties of individuals towards one another and to the creation which sustains us all. Our idea of democracy is founded on values which recognise the space of not only humans but also of nature — animals and plants — which incorporates the principles of environment.” “Asian unity”, Mr Modi told his Japanese audience, was envisioned by our thinkers Sri Aurobindo, Swami Vivekananda and Rabindranath Tagore, as reflecting such a higher unity.

In his address, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe too articulated the civilisational connect, when he said recalling his visit to Varanasi, “I knew that Varanasi was among the most sacred places, and while observing the ceremony, one thought after another struck me. A feeling of respect for the flow of water… that is something we Japanese need no explanation to grasp…On the bank of the Mother river, as I allowed myself to become lost in the music and the rhythmic movement of the flames, I was dazzled at the bottomless depths of history connecting both ends of Asia. Be it loving kindness, benevolence, fraternity, or harmony, I believe that in Asia, there extends an underground rootstock of thinking that supports democracy and values freedom and human rights.” In essence, the two civilisations, through a reaching out of minds, philosophies and cultural fundamentals were re-stating new terms of engagement and of expression — a new civilisational strategy that would restructure a partnership beyond the aeons.  Japan fascinated Swami Vivekananda, who insisted that the youth of India ought to visit that country in order to imbibe its energy and determination, the Japanese, he said, “seem now to have fully awakened themselves to the necessity of the present times.”

In India’s engagement with its  other civlisational partner, France, through alliances of climate, of energy, of strategy and of culture in fact are the defining contours of deeply strategic partnership — a strategic partnership in the truest and its most enduring term. This partnership is, in a sense, “made for each other”, as Prime Minister Modi observed. Through some of the most difficult periods, when India was often treated as a global pariah just because it aspired to pro-actively discover and consolidate its strategic space and seek its strategic depth, France stood by, often indignant that one could even think of putting India under sanctions! While the US hectored and homilied and most of its global allies followed suit, France stood by India, further cementing and infusing confidence in the relationship.

India in fact has always fascinated the French mind like it did to some of the most influential Indians of our age. In his fascinating study, “Swami Vivekananda in Europe” Swami Vidyatmananda, that indefatigable monk of the Ramakrishna order who tirelessly wandered around Europe retracing the Swami’s footprints, noted that “Swami Vivekananda was strongly drawn to France.” The Swami, recorded Vidyatmananda, “was attracted by the beauties of the country, by French culture, and by the French character. He wanted very much to become proficient in the French language. And he loved Paris”. In his uninterrupted stay of three months in France between August and October 1900, Vivekananda deeply immersed himself in the discovery of French culture, to him, “Paris (was) the fountainhead of European civilisation, as Gomookhi (was) of the Ganges.”

Scholars like Prithwin Mukherjee, professor Kamaleswar Bhattacharya, adopting France, dedicated themselves to bridging the two civilisations through the letters, arts, scriptures and music, while bathing in that “Gomookhi” of the West.

Most of the epochal penseurs français were fascinated by civilisational India. A section among them seriously thought that France could in fact liberate India from colonial bondage. Voltaire, one of the earliest and most well-known to articulate the French psyche’s fascination with India, wrote scathingly of how, Des que L’inde fut un peu connue des Barbares de l’occident & du nord, elle fut l’objet de leurs cupidité (the moment India came to be known by the barbarians of the West and the north, it became the object of their greed). Voltaire was convinced that “whether directly or indirectly, all nations are originally nothing but Indian colonies”!

It was the French sense ofliberté and justice that accorded sanctuary to Sri Aurobindo, the revolutionary-philosopher who eventually founded in Puducherry his Ashram. A long list of less discussed but unparalleled French scholars of Indian civilisation — through a lifelong and unwavering dedication and persistence — helped to spread the fundamentals and core-ideals of Indic thought throughout the world. As the India-France partnership gathers a newer dynamism, and the decision to inaugurate a new India cultural centre in Paris — it is indeed baffling that there was no Indian cultural in Paris — and the launch of namaste France and Bonjour India initiatives, one cannot but pay tribute to the likes of Sylvain Lévi, Jean Filliozat, Louis Renou, or George Ceodès to name a few. India attracted these minds, made them give their best energies to its discovery and revealed itself to them in its innermost grandeur and essential civilisational form.

When the Mother (Madame Mirra Alfassa) of Puducherry declared, “I am French by birth and early education; I am Indian by choice and predilection. In my consciousness there is no antagonism between the two, on the contrary, they combine very well and complete one another. I know also that I can be of service to both equally…” she was essentially symbolising this unique partnership and bond, a bond that, spanning centuries, can only grow in strength and richness. In fact, the Mother herself spent about four years in Japan immersing and imbibing Japanese civilisational essentials and striking a lifelong spiritual bond with her people and culture.

Civilisational partnerships are not artificially created, they evolve organically — leaders who perceive that evolution talk in terms of striking civilisational partnerships and strive to achieve it.